Wild at Art: Gottfried Keller’s “Der Grüne Heinrich”

Keller, Gottfried (2007), Der Grüne Heinrich (Erste Fassung), Deutscher Klassiker Verlag
ISBN 978-3-618-68023-9

This extraordinary novel, translated into English as “Green Henry”, is generally acknowledged to be one of the great novels of World Literature (we’re not getting into Canonization etc. here, a’ight?), and while I find ranking literature difficult, especially over a large period of time, after finishing “Green Henry” I could not but concede the justness of such a categorization. Please take heed: there are two editions of “Green Henry”, one published in 1854/55, with Gottfried Keller, at 33, still a young, energetic man. The second edition was published 25 years later, its author a settled, paunchy old man, almost as old as me. I read both editions a dozen years ago, this time I only reread the first edition. There are significant changes between the two editions and much of what distinguishes the first edition has been changed in the second, especially the dark ending, “dark as a cypress”, as Keller himself put it. I advise anyone who considers reading this book against reading the second edition first. Alas, I have not been able to find out which edition the English translation is based on.

“Green Henry” is not a perfect novel, far from it. Compared to perfect novels such as “The Good Solder”, this one is almost a formless, youthful, overcooked piece of prose. Keller was writing and drafting the novel while the presses were running, his publisher taking the drafts straight off his hands. Immediately after publication Keller expressed his distaste with the outcome of his work. He planned and drafted this novel for over ten years, assembling odds and ends, shifting parts to and fro. The only thing that stayed constant over all these years was the basic idea and the ending. When explaining why he did not discard the novel instead of trying to revise it into a bearable edition, Keller said that there are parts of the novel which he cannot explain, which he cannot reproduce. There are parts of the novel that “one can only have once, and only give once”, as he wrote. After finishing the novel, the reader will feel himself able to point to phrases, chapters, scenes the writer may have meant. I think this says a lot about the book and the impression it makes on its readers.

The plot is not particularly noteworthy, per se. As a classic Bildungsroman it follows the general rules of the genre. It follows Heinrich Lee, a young man from Zürich, through the first stages of his education, academical and sentimental, up to the dark last pages. One of many remarkable aspects is the structure. After twoscore pages Keller inserts an autobiographical récit. It is referred to as a “Youth history” (Jugendgeschichte) in the novel and makes up roughly half of the length of the complete novel. This section is written in the first person singular; the narrator is Heinrich himself and throughout the rest of the novel he carries the manuscript of the Jugendgeschichte everywhere with him. When he, in the later stages of the book, travels back to Zürich, poor and disgraced, he owns nought but the clothes on his back and the manuscript that contains his Jugendgeschichte. The beginning and the rest of the novel is narrated by an omniscient third person narrator, who is, true to the time, quite judgmental, but he is just judgmental enough to balance the cocky voice of Heinrich which has accompanied us for such a long time. The novel as a whole sometimes feels like one of the long, elaborate dreams related during its course, but it feels eerily balanced. Characters move in and out of it; the Jugendgeschichte starts at the beginning of one volume and ends in the middle of another; the third person narrator is sometimes annoyingly interested in Heinrich’s thoughts and feelings and sometimes he barely registers the existence of these things in Heinrich, but it all, miraculously, seems to cohere. And it’s Keller’s voice and thinking that makes it cohere, not the plot, not the writing and certainly not Heinrich the self-important twat.

Heinrich is driven by an ardent wish to become an artist; he has considerable talent and finds at home in Zürich several teachers to help him on his way. When the Jugendgeschichte sets in he is without a father. His father used to be a famous and brilliant man, and his fame is both a help and a hindrance for Heinrich in his days in Zürich. Heinrich’s mother is a dear, caring, thrifty woman, one of the most endearing characters I have ever encountered in literature. She manages their household money, pays for Heinrich’s lectures and, when he’s of age, endows him with enough money to enable him to move to Munich where he intends to pursue a career as a professional artist. The Jugendgeschichte suffers from having a first person narrator, because Heinrich (the protagonist) is a typical teenager, a know-it-all, who pities himself almost as often as he envisions a golden future; the fact that Heinrich (the narrator) wrote the Jugendgeschichte shortly before leaving for Munich, casting judgment upon his younger self, is making it worse.

There are two basic concerns in the Jugendgeschichte: art and love. Heinrich is a typical teenage boy who vacillates between pining for girls, which includes writing poems and drawing pictures of and for the loved one, and acting cool, in order not appear vulnerable towards the girl who obviously cannot feel anything for him. Granted, my own youth may have been a particularly pathetic specimen (which I still hesitate to turn to for in my writing, no matter how much I’d like to tap that source) but not much appears to have changed, once you subtract obvious (positive) changes in a society’s mores, such as teenage sexuality and the influence of Christian thought on your average thinking teenager. In this, we never see Heinrich grow up. In his infatuations and affairs with girls in Munich, he never stops being his teenage self. If a Bildungsroman charts a maturing of the main character, not just an education, “Green Henry”, I think, violates that rule. His behavior towards the first girl in his life and his behavior towards the last girl are strangely similar. Heinrich, called nicknamed ‘green’ because of the green clothes his mother sews for him, remains green for all his emotional life. He’d rather evade confrontations than talk or sit through them. If he has the opportunity to not open himself up to hurt, he will take it. As someone who can understand the logic of that, I could have told him that hurt is not easily put off one’s tracks; someday, it will catch up with you. Heinrich has this lesson driven home to him again and again yet he doesn’t learn, he remains green Henry.

It is completely different with art. Art, for Heinrich, is a continuous learning process. First he learns from teachers, then, upon visiting relatives in the country, he starts to learn from nature. The Jugendgeschichte is crammed with Heinrich’s ruminations about what real art should and should not do, it discusses the relation between art and nature, between copying a picture and creating one oneself. Time and again we see Heinrich torn between the easy solution of drawing an idea, a cliché ridden image, with no connection to the natural world, and what he sees as the ethos of art, trying to provide as truthful a picture of nature as possible. We find that his relatives in the country, even his peasant uncle who has not seen much art in his life, can easily spot the artifice, the ‘wrong’, the dishonest kind of art. All this is spread heavily throughout the Jugendgeschichte, and it’s tedious. As mentioned, we have two Heinrich’s in the Jugendgeschichte, Heinrich the protagonist and Heinrich the narrator, one more self-important than the other, and their combined odds and ends of education add up to this huge amount of vapid lecturing. The tediousness, however, has a function in the novel. We’re supposed to feel the stupendous amount of youth that lords over all of Heinrich’s actions so as to feel him growing in the second half of the book.

And, in contrast to Heinrich’s emotional life, his understanding of his own creativity and his art really matures and grows. His career as an artist never takes off because Heinrich isn’t willing to make it work, but at the same time, cut off from his home, cut off from nature, he digs deep into his creative urge and instincts. He understands, what works for him and what doesn’t. In a clear contrast to the Jugendgeschichte we barely see him drawing, painting, reflecting. What we get are dreams, where the cultural history of his country and the angsty swamps of his unconscious play out, we see him try to wake up after a year of doing nothing, try to tap into his creativity again, breathe into himself. In a pivotal scene he sits down to draw but he produces an abstract painting. His friends ridicule him, but neither they nor Heinrich himself can help being affected, if only for a moment, by the power of the painting, which is subsequently discarded. It does not fit the idea of good art, and good art, then and now, is equal parts accomplishment and market value. Heinrich admires crassly commercial artists, who are able to make any idea or sujet work with little effort: they just put their usual spin on it and it sells and sells and sells. Heinrich, on the contrary, is still searching for the perfect means to express himself.

Much of this novel seems run-of-the-mill, after all, it’s 1854, some of the most important and well known Bildungsromane have been written and provide a subtext for the novel: Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, Wieland’s Agathon or Jean Paul’s Siebenkäs. Keller clearly has no ambition to better them or to innovate. This novel turns, to look not at the world or literature or things like that, it turns inward. The way that the Jugendgeschichte is strewn over the 4 volumes in which the novel was published originally is significant: Heinrich’s quest is clearly also a formal imperative for this novel, which doesn’t present one long, convoluted plot as a series of skirmishes or battles with Heinrich’s art or himself, and he loses all of them. How ironic that, midway through the novel, he is to win the only actual fight he is in. Heinrich’s character makes us doubt his accounts in the Jugendgeschichte, too often Heinrich appears to exonerate himself from tougher charges; so while we read about his youth, we are constantly doubting the veracity of the Heinrich’s reports of the events relayed to us through his voice and when we watch him bumble through Munich, we are armed with the discussion of nature and artifice, shaken by the long dream sections which sometimes appear to be seamlessly blending into reality, and we start to doubt the evidence of our own ears, which makes for fascinating reading, although you don’t HAVE to read the novel that way. It doesn’t force any reading on you; you are perfectly free to read it as an example of the Bürgerlicher Realismus (bourgeois realism, a genre that dominated especially German 19th century novels in the second half of that century (Same time next week this blog will feature a review of another famous specimen of that genre, Wilhelm Raabe’s popular novel “Der Hungerpastor”)). Fact is, it drew me right in and especially the first and last third just flew by. Highly recommended (but only the first edition, remember!).

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2 thoughts on “Wild at Art: Gottfried Keller’s “Der Grüne Heinrich”

  1. What can I say? Somehow you make a book that you call a piece of “formless, youthful, piece of
    overcooked prose” sound like a must-read! You are positively remarkable. And this is a brilliant, extraordinary review.
    I’ll make more comments at the WLF later.

    ~Alexis

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